Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas Break - A Time for Traditions & Rejuvenation

Just like every other teacher in this world, I had a count down going for Christmas Break the moment we came back from Thanksgiving Break. Now, before you judge me I'd just like to say that I really do enjoy my kids, but I enjoy my breaks just as much as they do too! And for me, Christmas Break is more than just a time to be away from students, lesson plans, and grading, it's a time for some of my favorite traditions that surround the Christmas holidays. Although the traditions themselves and the people I share them with have changed a little over the years by time and circumstance, by and large, what goes on each year is the same comforting experience I so look forward to each break. So, I thought it would be fitting for me to take a little time on the last day of 2014 to share with you the two Christmas Break traditions that make me happy beyond belief and rejuvenated for the year to come.

Christmas Eve Dinner

Finished product -
best served
over white rice.
Starting our creole with
roux and the holy trinity
of cajun cooking -
onions, peppers, and celery.
For those of you who don't know, my mom is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As a result of her cultural upbringing, I get to experience many things only those who are related to crazy Cajuns can even begin to understand. Although many of those "experiences" (if you could call them that) will probably never be shared on this blog, one that I can share centers around the Christmas Eve dinner of shrimp creole my mom always prepares using my Mère's recipe. I can't remember a Christmas Eve spent with my family where we were not eating Shrimp Creole with a green salad and garlic bread as sides. As I've gotten older, I have spent more time in the kitchen with mom helping her get the meal prepared and this past year's Christmas Eve was no different. This year we traveled to Kentucky to have Christmas with my Dad's family at my Mema & Pepa's historic house we lovingly refer to as Mock's Creek. This year's Christmas Eve was one of my favorites since I spent nearly the whole day with just my mom - which I can't even begin to tell you when we did that last. First, we started the day out with massages and then we spent the rest of the afternoon making the shrimp creole - complete with a copy of Mère's recipe with some hand-written notes on it mom has added over the years. It came out delicious as always with plenty of left-overs for us to graze on after our Christmas lunch in the woods. I think one of the reason's I love this tradition so much - besides that it is one of the many examples of how delicious the food from Louisiana really is - is because it allows our family to truly come together as we sit around the table with my dad's family enjoying a meal from my mom's family cookbook.

Christmas Lunch & Gift Exchange
Christmas Lunch at the
Shelter House
Photo Credit: Steve Taylor
As with many families, our family's Christmas gift exchange has evolved over the years as grandchildren grew up and the family expanded. Additionally, with the passing of my Mema two years ago, we decided to change up our gift exchange location and with that, put a different twist on the traditional lunch menu this year. But even with all of that, the original premise of our family's Christmas day this year turned out much like the Christmas days I experienced growing up - in fact, I think this year was one of the best Christmas days I've ever enjoyed. Traditionally, my Mema would would cook a beef rib roast that she would serve with horseradish and various side dishes from her own little repertoire of meals. This year, we decided to spend the day on our timber farm in Kentucky where several years ago my Pepa built a shelter house complete with a stone fireplace. Since it would be difficult to replicate the rib roast and dishes my Mema traditionally cooked in the woods, my dad and Uncle Steve grilled ribeye steaks and we wrapped some potatoes in tin foil and cooked them in the fireplace to serve with the steaks. We also had a green salad and some munchies as appetizers while we waited on our Christmas meal to be served. The shelter house was cozy and warm despite the high for the day only being in the low 40's, which for this Florida girl is just a bit chilly!
Ridge-top view on the Elk Cave
property Christmas Day
After our meal, we all got on the 4-wheelers to check timber stands with Pepa and visit the latest spot where we had just harvested some sassafras and sycamore timber.  Afterwards, we drove back to the shelter house where each family proceeded to fill all the stockings we had hung earlier on the mantle the guys had made out of a sycamore branch the day before. Unlike in years past, we agreed to just do stocking-stuffers this year in the style of Mr. Dog & his Deep Woods friends from the story of "Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn," which we read each year before exchanging gifts.
Dad reading "Christmas at the
Hollow Tree Inn" before our
stocking gift exchange.
This is a tradition that goes back long before I was born, and each year my Dad and Uncle Steve take turns reading their childhood favorite to the family gathered around. We also always listen to my Pepa as he reads the story of Jesus' birth from the Bible before opening our gifts, which is both humbling and reminding of what Christmas is truly all about. Although this year put a bit of a spin on our Christmas Day, I had the best time modernizing some of our Christmas traditions with my family this year, and I can't wait until next year!

Taylor Family Christmas 2014
Photo Credit: Steve Taylor

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thankful to be Teaching

"I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." Philippians 4:12 (NIV)

As I sat down this morning to read my daily devotional I began to realize how much this scripture rings true in my life - personally and professionally. The last few months have been a bit of whirlwind to say the least. This is the time of the year that my job can really begin to get overwhelming - between the end of the 9 weeks, National FFA Convention, upcoming teams and contests, fundraisers, fair weigh-ins and tag-ins, and the various professional development trips I've had or have coming up in my schedule it becomes easy to focus on the obstacles and challenges I face in my job, not what I have to be thankful for. To complicate matters, Brandon has embarked on a journey of his own as he and a couple of other entrepreneurial spirits have started their own business, along with our continuing efforts with his brother to revitalize the family farm. As a result, my house has never been messier, student assignments (much like laundry and dishes) seem to be the gift that continuously keeps on giving - just as I get one pile graded, I've assigned something else and have twice as much to grade; my yard is looking a bit like the poster child for one of Jeff Foxworthy's "You Might be a Redneck" jokes, my waist line is expanding because when you leave before sunrise and come home after sunset ain't nobody got time for exercise, and of course my TO DO list is getting longer and longer by the minute.

But, I am SO thankful for these things and more! You see, I've had the opportunity over the past few weeks to travel around the state of Florida and the country with some of my favorite Agriculture Educators, and they've really helped me put some things into perspective. As all teachers do when they get together - it's probably one of our favorite past-times - my friends and I have shared both our frustrations with our job as well as the hilarious stories of our students and lessons. As a result of these conversations I realize now more than ever how lucky I am to be teaching a subject I'm passionate about and in a school district that I believe is one of the best in the state. Teaching, especially teaching high school agriculture, is hands-down one of the hardest jobs I have ever worked and I'd argue it is one of the hardest careers one could take on in today's world. Not convinced? Just spend a little extended time around any of your high school-age relatives this holiday season and I think you'll sympathize with our plight. With that said, although I have both a mentally and physically demanding job, it could be made so much more difficult if I worked this job under different circumstances - which is why I am thankful for a number of things:

First, I am thankful for my husband, my family, and my friends that continuously support me. Whenever I need something, they are the first people I reach out to so I can successfully execute whatever is on my plate. They are also the first people I neglect (and I'm ashamed to say so) when my schedule is as over-stuffed as your Thanksgiving turkey. Yet, they are understanding and patient with me as I squeeze them in and around all the lesson planning, FFA events, and SAE trips I have to make - sometimes even joining me as Brandon and I go to pick up a hog to weigh it, clip animals on the weekend, or keep me company at the fair - you know who you are and I can't thank you enough!

Second, I am thankful for the co-teachers I work with in the trenches, day in and day out. I've never worked in a single-teacher program and boy am I thankful for that! With every passing year I am in the classroom I realize more and more that I am only as successful as the program I work in and the people that I work with. I may be a bit biased, but our program is one of the best in the state of Florida and I'd even argue the nation. I believe it is because we each bring something to the table that benefits our students and our community, and we each specialize in contests and events throughout the year which helps to spread the responsibilities and workload out. I know that I can count on those that I work with to fill in for me when something comes up or offer help when I get overwhelmed. I know I can also count on them to offer me words of encouragement or words of honest frankness when I need them the most.

Third, I am thankful for the school district and administration I work for. The common culprit in many teaching frustration conversations is an un-supportive group of administrators. Like anything in government, teaching and education policy can be dictated as much by politics and the bottom line as anything else. I truly feel that my administration works diligently to shield us from that as much as possible. They listen to our concerns as teachers as it relates to the evaluation system, End of Course Exams, the time demands placed on us, lesson planning requirements, budgets, program needs, travel requirements, and anything else we fret over on a daily basis. I've never really asked for much, but I can't remember a time I was told "no" for a professional development need, travel request, or budget request. I also can't remember a time that I didn't see our Superintendent, School Board members, principal or AP (both from the high school and other schools in the county), and other district employees not come out to support our kids at an event like our banquet, fair, or any other chapter event. I know this doesn't happen at all programs in all areas of our state, and I am thankful for the support we receive.

Lastly, I am thankful for the community I work in and the students I work for. Our community is unique in that it is small and is home to several state-run prisons. As a result, I believe the parents businesses, and members of the community realize how important a well-rounded education truly is to the future success of the youth in the community. Many programs around the state and country are in a constant state of fundraising to generate money for lessons, FFA events, and other things that make an agricultural program (or really any educational program) run smoothly. Although we too find ourselves coming up with ways to creatively generate additional funds for the program, I am always overwhelmed by the generosity of those in our community and thankful for their continued support, year after year. As a result, we can focus on our students, our program, and ways to give back. Additionally, I wouldn't be here if weren't for my students. This year has honestly been one of my best groups of kids, and I couldn't be more thankful for that. I sometimes hear horror stories of disrespect and apathy from other teachers in other parts of the state. It is during these conversations that I remain silently thankful for the kids I work with each day - they are not perfect, but who is in this world?

Like I said, this job is hard - really, really hard. But it could be more difficult and for that I am thankful.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fill the Boots - National Teach Ag Day!

The word agriculture is one that probably paints, for many, a picture of a dusty field being plowed over with a green tractor by a weather-worn farmer. For me, the word agriculture brings much more than this simplistic picture to mind. Today's agriculture industry in the United States provides more than just the world's safest, most abundant and most affordable food supply, but also provides literally thousands of jobs, numerous technological and medical advances, services, and non-food products to citizens around the globe.

My job as an Agricultural Educator is to both reinforce the traditional image of agriculture, while also recreating the image of agriculture many of my students already have when they walk into my classroom each August. I think it is extremely important to not loose sight of the field when I teach agriculture - food and fiber production are at the heart of this industry. However, many of my students will never be directly involved in food or fiber production - just the consumption of these items. As a result, I feel compelled to equip my students with the working knowledge of how agriculture touches their everyday lives, how their food is produced and why it is produced in such a manner, as well as the opportunities available to them within the industry, both now as a high school student and in their future.

For the past month, I've been trying to do just - and thousands of others around the country share this common goal. However, each year numerous programs around the state of Florida and the U.S. are closed because they cannot find qualified individuals to fill the need in Agriculture Education classrooms. So today, for National Teach Ag Day, I took some time to share my experiences as an Agriculture Education teacher with my students - and as a result I also caught a (somewhat hysterical) glimpse of what they think I do each day. To do this, we took a break from our Leadership unit to play, "Think Like Your Ag Teacher" at the end of class. Using their Chrome books, I had them create a Google Doc where they wrote down their answers to each of my questions before we discussed them, and then they shared their Google Doc with me at the end of class. I promised the student(s) with the most correct answers a little something special when we return from the weekend on Monday. One of my favorite answers was to the last question I asked today - If the Ag Building was on fire, would I rescue the class guinea pig or my external hard drive with all my files after I got all the students out? One student replied, "#SAVETURBO #FIRE!" My thoughts - #Classic.

If your interested in learning what I've been doing in each of my classes this past month just check out the pages for each of my subjects. This weekend, I'll be uploading the lessons for each of my units along with an outline and the resources I use for each of my preps. It's a work in progress, so bear with me as I work all of that into my schedule!

Until then - do you know someone who can be tagged to Teach Ag???

Monday, August 25, 2014

Focusing on the Positive - The Teaching Experiment

As I sat in one of the last pre-planning meetings of the 2014 school year, I quickly became overwhelmed with all the things teachers get overwhelmed with that no one really understands unless you're, well, a teacher. With all of the legislative changes, End of Course exams, learning scales, learning goals, essential questions, formal and informal evaluations, differentiated instruction, universal design, faculty meetings, and individual professional development plans - not to mention the lesson planning for four preps, the school farm with the newly erected greenhouse, and the packed-to-the-max FFA calendar - it was becoming easy to forget why one would even start teaching in the first place. 

So, while I sat in this meeting feeling my blood pressure rise, wanting nothing more than to tell my principal to hold the phone and bring in the marching band to pep me up, that he revived me simply by passing out an index card. The directions: write one goal for yourself for the school year and pass it back. My first thought, "Whelp, he's going to read these, so I better make this good!" But, as I sat there thinking about the year ahead of me and what I should write, I decided my goal would be to focus on the positives in my career and to remember why I became a teacher - not to set a goal that at the end of the day means nothing to those I serve - my students. Because, at the end of the day, if I keep my students in mind and do right by them each day, then the rest will fall into place.

Why I Do What I Do
My 2014 Seniors
As the school year gears up yet again, I have decided to fire my blog back up in an effort to help me reach my goal and remain positive throughout this crazy, hectic year. I also hope that this blog can be used by other teachers as they strive to find ways to not only survive, but also teach agricultural concepts within their own classrooms. And lastly, I hope this blogging experiment will give my friends, family, and strangers alike a new perspective on what an Agricultural Education program can look like in today's public education system.